Queer Eye star Karamo Brown has made it a practice to always go to the HR department on first day of employment and encourages others to do the same. His reason is simple.
“For me, it’s important to go to HR departments on the first day, and say, ‘Hey - what has been in place to create safe spaces for individuals?’ That way, I can then follow up and say, ‘Here we are a month later, and I don’t know where these safe spaces are. I believe it’s important to challenge and encourage organisations to do the work,” Brown tells People Matters.
Fans love him as the ‘Culture Expert’ on Netflix’s reboot of “Queer Eye”, where he has meaningful cultural conversations with various participants to help them get to the core of understanding themselves and others. But this time, Brown is taking up a new challenge, of helping thousands of businesses to create more inclusive workplaces.
A passionate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) advocate, Brown is teaming up with Australia-based learning platform EdApp by SafetyCulture to help businesses move beyond DEI buzzwords and become more inclusive with a free 7-part course which was launched on Thursday.
Through this course, Australian workplaces and workers, whether they’re blue chip or white collar, will be able to seek free guidance on DEI from Brown, which is particularly important when you consider 76% of jobseekers and employees say diversity and inclusion programmes are an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.
“People ask why DEI is so important right now — it’s because when you recognise someone’s diversity and who they are, that’s when you see them. That’s when they feel they can be their authentic self and do their best work. I’m hoping everyone taking this course takes away the understanding that creating an inclusive workplace is easy to do, but it does take work. Each of us has to do the work daily to make sure we create a culture where everyone feels included,” he says.
Brown says when companies don’t support marginalised employees, everyone suffers, including the overall value of the company.
“When diverse voices are not being heard and their perspectives are not being added, you're missing out on so much value. Once that word gets out, your bottom line is going to be affected as well. Companies need to do the work not only for their own sake, but more importantly, for the employees’ sake,” he adds.
'A statement on a piece of paper doesn't help'
In the past companies Brown always felt that they had hired him to be the ‘LGBTQIA+ face’ and felt pressure to live up to a caricature of himself as a gay man for fear of losing his job.
“When you're a part of a marginalised community, the minute you walk into a room, you know what people are thinking. You can feel it immediately and through actions, you sort of start to confirm your suspicions. They didn't care about my opinion. I was there to be the black face or the LGBTQIA face, but not as someone who added value and, in those spaces, I've learned over time, how to have the courage to not only speak up and advocate for myself, but also to know that as I'm trying to change the culture and that I'm okay with leaving and finding somewhere that will value me,” he says.
He stresses that companies need to take diversity commitments seriously and make sure there are solid actions in place to support employees to feel seen, heard and respected.
“When I see companies make diversity commitments, I'm like, great, but what's next? You've made the diversity commitment. Now, what are the action steps that we’ll see every single day? A statement on a piece of paper is a good first step, but that statement doesn’t help me if the person that is my boss is making me feel uncomfortable. If I walk into my office and still feel as if I’m not seen, valued, heard, respected, then a piece of paper doesn’t do any good for me. So let’s take this statement and put it into action every single day,” he says.
Role of workplaces in correcting social inequities
Brown, who has extensive experience working in the LGBTQIA+ space from helping the White House to create legislation supporting LGBT+ youth to currently serving as a board member of global LGBT+ human rights organisation OutRight International, says creating an inclusive workplace needs to happen at a company level and an individual level.
“In the times that I've been discriminated against in my workplace, there have always been individuals who understood that they had the power to help change the culture of our workplace and to support me. It's those individuals, as I do my work, that I've leaned on. If we all understand our responsibility, things can and will change,” he adds.
While it’s important to stand up for co-workers, Brown says it’s also important to make sure that you don’t put them in jeopardy.
“When someone shares with you that they need support, there’s ways that you can think about what you can do to support that doesn’t put them in danger. For example, ask yourself how you can start to educate yourself, so that you can go to the employers and say, 'This is what I’ve researched, this is what I think is going on here, and how are you going to address it?' Base it in your education, and explain that what you’ve learned doesn't align with how the culture is right now. And ask, 'What are we going to do to change that'?”
Why is it important for co-workers to spot and stop microaggressions at workplaces
Brown says it is imperative that we speak up for each other as co-workers when we see a microaggression happening.
“When I first started working in corporate America, early on, I thought I had to be a character because that's what is expected of me as a gay man. There was always something scandalous like encouraging or wanting me to have a language that wasn't authentic in those spaces, me saying things that would be perceived as more gay language.
"I felt uncomfortable, and that my job was going to be in jeopardy if I didn't, but there was an older lesbian coworker who spoke up for me. She made sure that there was a boundary set that no one could ask me to act or be a certain way because that was making me uncomfortable,” he recalls.
Brown says that support gave him the ability to know that he had a voice and that things could change.
“And I'm thankful for her speaking up because she was my voice when I didn't feel like I had one and she knew that she had my permission to do so. It was important because otherwise that culture would have never changed.”
He adds that no matter what level you're at in your life, you have to look around where you're at and say, “What can I do here to make sure that it's more diverse, more inclusive, more equitable”, because we all have that power.
“It's not just about having some money or access to being on TV, every single one of us has that power. To make the world a little better,” Brown notes.